A spirited quest: The journey to find Grand Rapids' best cocktails

Where are you sipping your favorite cocktails this holiday season? In a quest to find, taste, and explore local spirits and concoctions, Managing Editor Lauren Fay Carlson and Publisher Tommy Allen went searching for some of Grand Rapids' best cocktails.
Grand Rapids has earned the beer city moniker time and time again. And we do love our beer. With an ever-expanding number of breweries in the Greater Grand Rapids area and even more bars, pubs and restaurants serving up locally brewed combinations, we're pretty excited about this stuff. But quickly gaining popularity, sometimes under the radar and sometimes winning slews of awards, are the spirits and spirit enthusiasts humming alongside the kegs.

In a quest to find, taste, and explore these spirits, Managing Editor Lauren Fay Carlson and Publisher Tommy Allen went searching for some of Grand Rapids' best cocktails. Some are crafted with local spirits, others simply with the spirit of Grand Rapids in neighborhood establishments, served up with egg whites, charred rosemary, or simply a coaster and a smile.

In our friendly community, there are plenty of cocktails to be enjoyed. So take a break from your favorite IPA and come on a journey to find some of GR's best cocktails.

Bier Distillery - Comstock Park

Somewhat often the beaten bath, you'll find this husband-and-wife owned distillery. Started in Sparta, Joel Bierling has been channeling his German and Dutch roots and distilling his home-grown spirits since 2014. Dabbling in whiskey, gin, beer, wine, and even absinthe complete with wormwood grown on site, Bierling admits, "We make everything."

One of only two distilleries in the state of Michigan distilling absinthe (the liquor was banned in the U.S. from 1912-2007 due to its so-called hallucinogenic properties), Bierling is proud to offer up "the absinthe experience," complete with sugar cube. Herbaceous but tame and even refreshing, Bierling's absinthe does the complex spirit justice, offering a subtle, layered flavors in a milky green glass.

"The Absinthe Experience"
Henry's Absent Absinthe Verte, sugar, water

Another favorite, perfect for the holiday season, is Bierling's ButterBier, an ultra-creamy concoction that Harry Potter enthusiasts are sure to love. Though likely not short on calories, this tall, whimsical glass may just transport you through Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.

Devil's Message Planked Rum
Butterscotch, cream soda, whipped cream

The "Polish Falcon."

Long Road Distillers - Westside

Open just two and a half years, this Westside favorite has collected so many awards they're not sure where to store them. Famous for their Aquavit and the its three later versions, Long Road has recently been receiving accolades for its Michigin, a smooth, herbaceous spirit that can easily be consumed straight—and I would not normally say this about gin. Tommy and I opted for their most popular cocktail, the Polish Falcon, a smooth yet bold concoction similar to a Dark and Stormy (rum and ginger beer). Made with their house ginger beer, this cocktail takes local to another level.

Polish Falcon
Vodka, lime, house ginger beer

Desperate to get another swig of Michigin, we opted for the Strang's Crown, a tart number served in a Collin's glass. Easily sipped but pleasantly sour, this is cocktail for lemon lovers.

Strang's Crown
Michigan, fenugreek, lemon, white vermouth

The "Roses Are Free."

Butcher's Union - Westside

For a relatively new venture located in the former site of Monty's, known for crowded dance floors and $1 Tuesdays, Butcher's Union is a revelation. Low lit, but cherry and classic, with dark wood everywhere and an intense focus on wood and whiskey. Bartender Nick Weller was proud to punctuate the surprisingly busy Monday crowd by serving up two signature cocktails complete with a blow torch.

The first was a pub favorite, Roses Are Free, in which he expertly toasted rosemary and a single, giant ice cube. Tommy was particular fond of the creation, noting that it would become a regular order for him. "I think what stood out was how familiar some of the flavors were to a classic manhattan but with the other liquor and the aromatic, gentle punch of the smoked rosemary, the drink became its own person," he says. "Much like a child eventually develops their own personality but is clearly rated in a strong familial line."

Roses Are Free
Rittenhouse rye & Averna amaro stirred with BU simple syrup, muddled rosemary and Peychaud's bitters, served over an ice shard with orange peel extract and a single rosemary sprig

Weller described his next cocktail as a "bright, citrus-y drink," featuring Gray Skies' Barrel Finished Gin. Instead of being overpoweringly tart, however, the drink is balanced with the soft, drinkable spirit.

The Last Word
Gray Skies Barrell Finished Gin, green chartreuse, maraschino liquor

The "Clover Club."

Buffalo Trader's Lounge - Midtown

The newest addition to the cocktail scene, this old-fashioned, Art Deco dedicated space designed by HGTV Star contestant Tylor Deveraux opened this summer. Bartender Tony Jones, who spent the past three years tending bar at Mangiamo's before it closed in August, described the bar was "focused on the classics." With leather-bound menus, emerald-green wallpapered walls and a distinct air of the past, we got the sense that he was correct.

Jones first served up a delightfully crisp cocktail with an impossibly light egg white foam. It was pink and perfect.

Clover Club
Gin, raspberry liquor, lemon juice, egg white

The second cocktail was certainly an ode to the classics, an old fashioned, that borrowed from the new, utilizing Gray Skies' smooth Breakfast Rye. With just a hint of sweetness, this comforting reminder of the past is perfect for a night cap.

Brown Sugar Old Fashioned
Gray Skies Breakfast Rye, brown sugar, bitters

Though this is certainly not an exhaustive list, hopefully it has provided a few options for Grand Rapidians to explore this holiday season and well beyond. Using local spirits or time-trusted liquors, GR bars and distilleries are whipping up classic and sometimes surprising cocktails to enliven and diversify your evenings about town.

Photos by Tommy Allen
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